“If you are interested in democracy and its future, you better understand computers.”
— Ted Nelson, 1974
We hear it often about the digital era: “Everything has changed.” We hear that new technologies, business models, and modes of thinking are not just interesting, but downright revolutionary.
Examples include books like Don Tapscott’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and Bill Eggers’ The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society’s Toughest Problems, among many others.
These sort of “there’s a new zeitgeist” claims are nothing new. In 1884, The Sunday Magazine wrote that “[i]t is, unfortunately, one of the chief characteristics of modern business to always be in a hurry. In olden times it was different.” In 1895, G.J. Goschen described “modern life,… with its… almost instantaneous communication between remote points of the globe.”
When all is weighed and measured, however, the digital era creates amazing possibilities for governance – everything has changed. However, everything has also changed about the challenges for governance. And this has created some major tension for governments between conflicting forces.
Privacy and high service standards: We live in an era of convenience and choice, where companies like Amazon set our standards for service. If a product we’re buying requires a complementary component like a cable or adaptor, we’ll find ourselves staring at it. Yet, digital privacy concerns have never been more salient; applying the private-sector standard of tracking people’s behaviour to provide customized service is not a clear win.
High service standards and transparency/accountability: At the recent Digital Governance Forum in Ottawa, Liberal Gerald Butts analogized that digital communications and social media have turned discrete interactions between government and citizens into a cocktail party, where everyone is in a room and the conversation starts hours before you arrive and continues hours after you leave. You have to listen, quickly situate yourself in the conversation, and provide something relevant. However, governments have never been more tightly scrutinized, and those cocktail party comments reverberate.
Transparency/accountability and collaboration: As Tapscott and Eggers point out, solutions to public problems can come from anywhere and groups can take advantage of zero-marginal-cost communications to collaborate. But governments are limited in their ability to participate in the give-and-take nature of collaborative relationships; if an action doesn’t directly create demonstrable value for Canada as per an organization’s mandate, it’s not defensible.
Digital era tools and digital era problems: This is the vital contradiction of the era – the opportunities of the digital era don’t necessarily solve the problems of the digital era.
Hot on the heels of “everything has changed”, we hear this: “We need to use 21st century tools.” This includes everything from e-voting, to collecting public input through Liquid Feedback, to crowdsourcing policy ideas and program delivery solutions. However, the digital era problem isn’t that governments are not taking advantage of tools to engage, it’s that governments have always been oversimplifying things – but now everyone knows it.
Ubiquitous, low-cost digital communications have revealed the extent of states’ ignorance about both the complexity of policy impacts and about the number and nature of people who are impacted and who would be interested in engaging with government. Every time someone expresses dissent, corrects misconceptions on which policy is based, or simply says, “this doesn’t work for me,” it should make us rethink both our understanding of the policy in question and our ability to understand complex situations in general.
The key digital era problem is neither truly digital nor a problem. It’s an opportunity to correct a long-standing governance deficiency. The digital era has revealed more about the complexity of the world, and our response will have to involve the full suite of options, digital and otherwise.
Competing forces – chiefly engagement, high standards, accountability, and transparency – are creating massive contradictions and tension in the digital era. And these are not forces that can be marginalized or compromised. So the digital governance challenge is finding the creative way out of each stalemate. It won’t be easy.